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The Globe and Mail

Where the women are: Mad Men mentality rules ad world


You can say this about those who programmed the Cannes Lions advertising festival: They know how to hit a target audience. On Tuesday morning, they booked in a discussion on the ad industry's sexism right before a cozy chat featuring Robert Redford: et voila, the female delegates (who have been hard to spot up to this point because of the overwhelming presence of men) packed the Palais.

Martha Stewart opened the panel on gender disparity with a story of her own experience with Madison Avenue's sexism. When she was a teenaged model in the late 1950s, she once went on a "go-see" casting call in which the models had to wear bikinis even though the commercial for which they were auditioning had nothing to do with swimwear: The ad executives just wanted to see a bunch of pretty girls in bikinis. The creator of Mad Men, she suggested, "has missed a lot of what went on, on Madison Avenue in those days. It's the truth. The reality is much worse than the program on television."

It remains a problem at the highest levels, with women sorely underrepresented among senior creative ranks. CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien, who moderated the session, framed the issue in stark and embarrassing terms for the industry: "If you look at competing industries - investment banking, which is not exactly a bastion for powerful women, or lawyers - they've had great progress in women leaders. They've made tremendous change, comparatively, to creatives.

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"There are women in my business, TV news, a generation before me, we called them 'news nuns' - anybody who was successful did not have kids. A generation later, it's completely changed. Most of the women I work with have a family, and that's considered to be a plus. So why, in an industry that's supposed to get into the head of the American family, is the family not a plus?"

None of the panelists had an answer.

The Redford brand

The mood in the room brightened considerably in the next session, as Robert Redford spent half an hour waxing nostalgic about his career. He told a story of his first two contrasting visits to Cannes: In the mid-1950s, hitchhiking across Europe, he spent a rough night here in late winter, sleeping under a pier while listening enviously to the noises of gaiety and celebration emanating from the nearby Carlton Hotel. Then, 18 years later, he was here for the annual film festival, at a party in the Carlton, when he gazed out on the pier and suddenly recalled himself as a hitchhiking youth, shivering away.

The story had nothing to do with advertising, but to judge by the applause, it burnished the brand that is Robert Redford.

Canadian connection

Canadian agencies picked up four honours on Tuesday evening when the next three of Cannes's 13 awards categories - media, outdoor, and radio - were handed out. While there were no winners in outdoor, in media BBDO Toronto won a Silver Lion for its Swiss Chalet 'Rotisserie Channel' featuring chickens roasting on a spit 24 hours a day, and Proximity won bronze for its M&M's Find Red effort. DDB Canada Toronto and Grey Canada Toronto each won a bronze for radio ads.

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